PARASHAT VA’ETHANAN - SHABBAT NAHAMU
August 5, 2006 – 11 Av 5766
Annual: Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11 (Etz Hayim, p. 1005; Hertz p. 755)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 5:1 - 6:25 (Etz Hayim, p. 1015; Hertz p. 765)
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1 – 26 (Etz Hayim, p. 1033; Hertz p. 776)
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
Moses’ speech continues his history of the wanderings of the Israelites. He recalls how he pleaded with God to be allowed to enter the Promised Land. God tells him not to speak of this matter again. Moses reminds the Israelites of the laws and rules that God has given them and how these laws will make them a wise and discerning people. Despite these good teachings, they also will be easily tempted by the ways of the Canaanites.
Moses warns the people not to make any kind of image of God. If they practice the idolatrous ways of the peoples around them, God will forsake them and scatter them among the peoples. (These warnings are the Torah reading on Tisha B’Av, which always falls during the week before this portion is read.) If the Israelites remember God, however, then God will recall the covenant He made with their ancestors. At the end of this speech is a short narrative in which Moses establishes three cities of refuge on the east side of the Jordan.
The portion continues with a repetition of the giving of Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, here called Horeb. The wording is similar to that in Exodus but there are some minor changes, particularly regarding the Sabbath laws. Out of this comes the midrash that God gave both sets of commandments at the same time. (In the Friday night prayer Lecha Dodi we say shamor v’zachor bedibur echad -- “Guard [the wording in Deuteronomy] and remember [the wording in Exodus] were spoken simultaneously.”) The portion repeats the centrality of observing the commandments.
Towards the end of this portion is what many consider the most important paragraph in the Jewish liturgy – the Sh’ma -- “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” The section continues with a series of commandments: to love God with our entire being, to teach our children, to bind the commandments on our head and between our eyes, and to write them on the doorposts of our houses and on our gates. Again the centrality of the law is emphasized. When one’s son asks what the laws mean, his father should answer, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.” (This text is the question and answer of the wise child in the Passover haggada.) The portion ends with the exhortation not to intermarry with the peoples of the land. The Israelites are to be a treasured people consecrated to God.
Issue #1 - Is God One?
“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
- Sometimes we Jews contradict ourselves within our own liturgy. The Sh’ma, taken from this week’s portion, is the central prayer of Jewish faith. It is the first prayer a child learns and it is meant to be recited each night before you go to sleep. It is the last prayer a person says before dying. The Sh’ma is at the center of the morning and the evening service. Day in and day out the Jew proclaims that the Lord is our God and the Lord is One. Alenu, a beautiful prayer borrowed from the Rosh Hashana liturgy, is recited at the end of every service, three times a day. It speaks of a day in the future when all humanity will come to worship one God. It speaks of that glorious day in the future; to the prophet Zechariah, “On that day the Lord shall be One and His name will be One” (Zechariah 14:9). Is there a meaning to this prayer beyond the concept of monotheism? If the only meaning is that God is One, something widely accepted in major religions today, what is the added meaning of God as One in the future?
- Perhaps part of the answer can be found in kabbalah. Kabbalah, at least as taught by the medieval mystic Isaac Luria, proclaims that before the creation of the world God was a unified whole. In order for the world to exist, God had to contract within God’s self, leaving room for the world, a concept known as tzimtzum. God left behind holy sparks in vessels, but the vessels could not hold the sparks and shattered, scattering sparks throughout the universe. By the very act of creation, the unity of God was somehow broken. Our job as human beings is to put God’s vessels, like Humpty Dumpty, back together again.
- At the beginning of time, in the ideal world, God was One. In the beginning God was One. Our task as human beings is to make God One once again. We proclaim the Sh’ma, speaking of God’s Oneness, to inspire us to make God One. Our task is to unify God’s name and return to that primordial Oneness.
- If our job is to make God One again, how do we go about achieving that task? In what way do our actions to create unity between men and women, between different nations, or even within our own families help establish the unity of God?
Issue #2 – Taking Faith Seriously
“I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of bondage” (Deuteronomy 5:6)
- This parashah contains a repetition of the Ten Commandments, which were given first in the book of Exodus. The first of the Ten Commandments speaks of God Who took us out of Egypt out of the house of bondage. To our eyes, this seems to be a statement. We are prompted to ask ourselves what precisely is being commanded here. If the commandment is to believe in God, if we already believe in God, we do not need the commandment. If we do not believe in God, how can we understand who is doing the commanding? The Hebrew term for the Ten Commandments is aseret hadibrot, which literally means The Ten Sayings. They are ten basic statements of faith that go beyond mere commandments.
- The primary element is to live a life based on a faith in God. The first commandment states that there is a God. It becomes our challenge to ask ourselves the question that the prophet Micah asked centuries earlier: “What does God demand of you?” (Micah 6:8). The first commandment is to live life with an awareness of God’s presence. It is a commandment to take religion seriously.
- According to many polls, Jews are the least likely of the major faiths to attend a house of worship in any particular week. It seems that Jews are least likely to be serious about their faith. Many Jews say, “Rabbi, I am a cultural Jew. I am proud to be Jewish. But I have no use for the religion.”
- Jews who make such statements are nonetheless passionate about many issues that touch on religion. They are passionate about church-state separation, about abortion rights, about Israel, about remembering the holocaust, about fighting anti-Semitism, about social justice. It seems, however, that far fewer Jews are passionate about God, religion, Jewish observance. In a society where “freedom to” or “freedom from” are core values, there seem to be fewer Jews who ask, “What are my obligations to my faith?” than those who ask, “How do I keep religion out of the public square?” What can we do to create a sense of passion for observance and commitment to God within Judaism?